A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement
Reprinted with permission from A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement by Katey Zeh copyright © 2022 Broadleaf Books.
Uncovering the Culture of Shame, Stigma, and Silence around Abortion
As I shared in the preface, I do not have a personal abortion story. I once thought this was a detriment. How could I advocate effectively for something I had not experienced personally?
We don’t need to experience something personally to care for those who do. I may never understand fully what it’s like to end a pregnancy, but I can choose to respond with compassion when someone shares their abortion story with me.
When I talk about compassion, I’m careful not to conflate it with empathy. While empathy involves feeling someone else’s experience as our own, which can be overwhelming and even numbing, compassion is a process that moves us into taking action that centers the one in need. Compassion is active. All of us can learn to be more compassionate, but doing so requires self-awareness, reflection, and regular practice.
Until my midtwenties, I didn’t know anyone in my life who’d had an abortion because no one told me. If no one has told you about their abortion, I can assure you there are people in your community, your circle of friends, and most likely your family who have ended pregnancies.
Imagine that someone you love told you they needed an abortion. How do you think you would respond? What feelings might come up for you? If someone has come to you in the past about a decision to end a pregnancy, what was that experience like? If you could do it over again, what would you do differently?
Talking about abortion can be incredibly difficult. It makes sense that we might choose to opt out because we’re uncomfortable and don’t know what to think or say. Being honest about where we are on our journey and showing ourselves grace are part of becoming more compassionate, because we have to be kind to ourselves if we hope to grow in kindness toward others.
In college, I wrote my senior honors thesis on a theology of motherhood. During my defense, one of my committee members asked if I had considered addressing abortion. In the wrong hands, she warned, my text could be weaponized against legal abortion. I grew quiet. I hadn’t mentioned abortion because I honestly hadn’t seen the relevance to my work. (This is a time when I have to show my younger self compassion for my naïveté.) I didn’t see how interconnected abortion and parenthood were at the time.
Perhaps you can relate. Many Christians I know, especially those who identify as white and progressive, say they support legal abortion, but they have a hard time affirming it as a morally sound choice. I would never have an abortion, but I think other people should be able to do what is right for them is a common sentiment expressed by politically pro-choice people. As Christian ethicist Rebecca Todd Peters writes in her book Trust Women: A Progressive Christian Argument for Reproductive Justice, many of us believe that abortion is only OK for other people, not for us.
When we keep quiet about abortion, or when our support is lukewarm and detached, we signal to people that we would rather not hear about their experiences. There is a culture of silence around abortion, and that silence is shaming and isolating on both a personal and a collective level. We have to face our internalized abortion stigma. Otherwise, we keep ourselves at arm’s length from the lived reality of abortion — and from the people who need our support and compassion the most.
As Christians, we have to reckon with the fact that the antiabortion political movement draws on theological language and biblical texts in order to stigmatize people who have abortions and limit their access to reproductive health care. This extreme “pro-life” ideology is steeped in racism, classism, and sexism and does irreparable damage to the most vulnerable in our society, including people living in poverty, young people, undocumented people, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color.
We have an opportunity and a responsibility to call out this harm and begin to repair it. This work will be uncomfortable, even painful, as we acknowledge the ways we have failed and have been complicit in these unjust systems and practices, but in coming together, we take active, purposeful steps toward cocreating with God a world we long to inhabit, one that supports the human flourishing of all people.
Before we can begin the work of building our compassion and healing the culture of shame surrounding abortion, we need to establish an understanding of how we ended up in this current climate. When and how did we become so polarized around this issue? When and how did Christianity writ large become synonymous with being opposed to abortion? In short, it was no accident.
Though the history of Christian views on abortion goes back centuries, for the sake of our discussion, I will focus primarily on the time period just prior to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision and the immediate aftermath that continue to influence the public discourse on abortion today.
You may be surprised to learn that in the late 1960s and early 1970s, mainline Protestant, Jewish, and Unitarian clergy, along with laity across religious traditions, were at the forefront of the movement to legalize abortion in the United States. A robust network of faith leaders called the Clergy Consultation Service on Abortion operated throughout the country to help more than 450,000 women access safe abortion from reputable providers, even though the procedure was mostly illegal. The network also advocated publicly for the expansion of abortion rights at the state and national levels. In retrospect, these clergy may seem like radical activists on the fringes of their religious traditions. While their actions were certainly bold and courageous, they mostly had support from their governing religious bodies. Many mainline Protestant denominations spoke in support of the Roe v. Wade decision, as evidenced by their public statements at the time. For example, in a 1976 resolution, the Southern Baptist Convention Uncovering the Culture of Shame, Stigma, and Silence around Abortion
(SBC) affirmed their “conviction about the limited role of government in dealing with matters relating to abortion, and support[ed] the right of expectant mothers to the full range of medical services and personal counseling for the preservation of life and health.”
Today this piece of religious history seems all but forgotten. What happened? I spoke with scholar Dr. Gillian Frank, who shared the historical and political context of the time. In the 1960s, a time of expanding civil rights, white conservative Catholics, Mormons, and evangelicals — three religious groups that had little in common theologically but shared social interest in the submission of women and the continuation of racial segregation — began to form a political alliance to oppose legal abortion and integration. This religious voting faction was critical to the 1972 reelection of Richard Nixon, whose campaign was “fueled by racist dog whistles to white Southerners and to white urban and suburban Catholics.” A year later, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in every state. Suddenly, abortion was no longer something hidden from view. Now it was widely available and visible, and this reality made many white, conservative-leaning voters uncomfortable. According to Frank, this is when abortion started to become a right-wing issue, especially for white voters: “When Roe legalized abortion, it made the process accessible to everyone, and this made some people very uneasy. For them, abortion was never decent, but it was a necessity. Once it became widely available, people who had always said abortion was wrong joined with those who were uncomfortable with abortion being a widely accessible and practiced reality in public. They were much more comfortable when abortion was invisible, hidden, and not in every community.” Though the religious antiabortion movement preceded the rise of the political religious right, it had gained a broadening political base and the momentum needed to dismantle the progress made for reproductive freedom and civil rights more generally. From its inception, the political antiabortion movement fueled by religious conservatives has been linked with white supremacy and Christian nationalism. For decades, its overwhelmingly white and majority male leadership has pushed a legislative agenda aimed at making abortion practically inaccessible by restricting the use of government funds for abortion care in federal health programs like Medicaid and those that serve Indigenous people living on reservations; imposing medically unnecessary restrictions on abortion providers and clinics at the state level; and implementing other obstacles, like mandatory waiting periods, parental notification laws, and bans on procedures at different stages of gestation. These laws disproportionately impact people living in poverty, young people, immigrant communities, and Black and brown communities. The messaging of the antiabortion movement, however, purports itself to be both “prowoman” and the protector of Black people from “genocide.” Nowhere within their antiabortion framework is a recognition of the hundreds of years of reproductive oppression of Black women through slavery, forced sterilization, mass incarceration, and other forms of reproductive control sanctioned and practiced by the state.
The well-funded, well-organized antiabortion movement sprouted branches of influence that began to permeate the dominant culture with its oppressive values of patriarchy, white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and Christian nationalism. President Ronald Reagan, backed by the religious right, waged a “war on drugs” that targeted Black communities and fueled mass incarceration while he waged another battle against the sexual health and well-being of young people by funding abstinence-only education in public schools.
At the same time, white evangelical communities, in response to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, fixated on sexual abstinence as a means of controlling the sexuality of young people, especially white women, giving rise to the “purity culture” of the 1990s. Although the principles of Christian purity culture were not new, they were now being promoted and paid for by the federal government. On a spiritual level, this rise of purity culture propped up and reinforced antiabortion ideology: that those capable of becoming pregnant cannot be trusted to make moral decisions about their bodies and that being subservient to (white, male) leadership is required to honor God.
It’s not surprising, then, that one of the most influential voices in the antiabortion movement is a white conservative evangelical. David Reardon, the founder of the nonprofit Elliot Institute for Social Science Research, is one of the most outspoken proponents of the ideology that “abortion hurts women,” a framing that purports to center women while stripping them of their bodily autonomy and reproductive dignity. Reardon is not a social scientist; he is an engineer by training. Despite his lack of credentials in any field relevant to mental health, Reardon has managed to amass a body of written works in order to produce evidence of what some antiabortion activists refer to as “postabortion syndrome,” a type of post-traumatic stress resulting from an abortion. Notably, the American Psychological Association has never verified the existence of any such condition. Nevertheless, Reardon has published numerous books and articles to substantiate the prevalence of this fictitious condition. He often co-writes with psychologist and fellow antiabortion researcher Dr. Priscilla Coleman, and their published work together has had an enormous influence on the antiabortion movement.
The angle of antiabortion proponents like Reardon has been to paint their cause as an effort not only to save babies from being murdered but to save women from the trauma of abortion. Abortion, they claim, is antiwoman, and thus women deserve better than abortion. What is it exactly that would be “better”? By focusing exclusively on the aftereffects of abortion, they opt out of any and every opportunity to engage the hard work of addressing systems of oppression that result in the underlying circumstances that contribute to the decision to have an abortion: economic inequality, gender-based violence, lack of social support for parents and families, and so on. In this way, antiabortion activists have attempted to hide their ultimate purpose — to make abortion illegal — under the guise of helping women. (In reality, making abortion illegal does not stop abortion; it only makes it less safe. We need only look at data from countries where abortion is entirely or mostly illegal to see that unsafe abortion contributes to increased rates of pregnancy-related deaths and injuries.) By shifting away from calling those who have abortions “murderers” to calling them “victims” instead, antiabortion activists like Reardon seek to position themselves as the truly compassionate ones — and it’s worked.
While Reardon’s ultimate goal is to make abortion illegal, his insistence on the prevalence of postabortion syndrome has swayed policy makers and certain sectors of the public to believe that abortion causes high rates of mental illness and psychological disorders, which has influenced the passage of legislation that impacts abortion care. In 2005, his testimony before a South Dakota legislative task force helped shape their “informed consent” abortion law, which requires providers to tell their patients that abortion increases their risk of depression and suicide, a claim that has never been proven by any reputable psychological study. This same testimony later influenced another law in South Dakota that requires providers to ask people seeking abortion care if they have been coerced into terminating their pregnancies. Along with these consent laws, Reardon has advocated for legislation that would allow patients to pursue legal action against abortion providers for any mental illness they have following their procedures.
In addition to shaping antiabortion legislation, Reardon’s claims have influenced the highest levels of our judicial system. In 2007, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his majority opinion to uphold an abortion ban, referred to the “severe depression and loss of esteem” that women experience because they regret their abortions, even as he admitted the lack of “reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It’s beyond concerning and infuriating that unsubstantiated claims about the negative emotional and psychological impacts of abortion have the power to shape the landscape of reproductive health care access in this country.
For us to understand the significance of Reardon’s influence, we need to examine not only the political ramifications but also the spiritual consequences of his narratives about abortion. Reardon’s motivations are at least in part religious. He has written that abortion is a sin that Satan encourages women to commit and that choosing abortion is a rejection of God’s gift of a pregnancy: “Remember, your abortion was a result of your failure to trust God. In giving you that pregnancy, God was giving you the opportunity to love. But you rejected this gift because you did not trust God’s plan for you.” His antiabortion theology and pseudoscience have inspired an overabundance of books, videos, organizations, and other resources that claim to offer healing after an abortion, but like Reardon’s works, they are steeped in judgment, shame, and bad science. Much like antiabortion crisis pregnancy centers that pose as health clinics offering reproductive health services, this body of work has the appearance of helpfulness and solidarity but in reality promotes misconceptions about abortion as universally harmful to those who have them and universally sinful against God.
Many of the resources that address healing after an abortion are based on the author’s personal story of abortion and grief and serve as acts of repentance. One notable example is Her Choice to Heal: Finding Spiritual and Emotional Peace after Abortion by Sydna Masse, founder of the antiabortion organization Ramah International, which provides resources for crisis pregnancy centers. In the book, Masse details her own abortion experience, which inspires her afterabortion ministry work now. The book is the basis of Masse’s free online abortion recovery program for “postabortive individuals” and begins with an explanation of postabortion syndrome. While Masse addresses common emotions like denial, anger, and grief, she attributes them to sin that needs to be forgiven and healed by God (and with her help and resources) rather than acknowledging that these feelings are normal responses to any kind of loss and/or change in a person’s life. She ends her course with tips for how to share abortion stories or “testimonies” about their sin of abortion and being forgiven by God with public audiences.
What I find fascinating and maddening is that Masse had reproductive freedom and exercised her reproductive rights in having an abortion, yet she has established a career out of telling others that they ought not have the same choices available to them. She may regret her abortion and view it as a sin, but regardless, she had access to health care when she needed it.
Abortion healing ministries like Masse’s are designed in part to evangelize and recruit abortion storytellers to further the antiabortion political agenda. Perhaps the most robust example of this is Project Rachel, a worldwide organization funded by Priests for Life and Anglicans for Life that targets people who have had abortions and their partners. Like Masse’s book and course, they rely heavily on David Reardon’s questionable findings to substantiate their claims about the effects of abortion on mental health to promote Rachel’s Vineyard, postabortion retreats that are held worldwide. The website for Rachel’s Vineyard advertises these retreats as “therapy” (though it’s unclear if their retreat facilitators are licensed therapists), but in other places, they claim these retreats are a form of evangelization. Certainly, these retreats have larger aims than personal healing. Rachel’s Vineyard recruits attendees to participate in Silent No More, a public antiabortion advocacy campaign that is also funded by Priests for Life. The same priest who directs Rachel’s Vineyard, Fr. Frank Pavone, also directs Silent No More. One of their efforts is to recruit women to stand with signs that say “I regret my abortion” at rallies and protests about abortion rights. On the Silent No More YouTube page are hundreds of public testimonies from women who attended Rachel’s Vineyard retreats and are now outspoken advocates against abortion.
While I have no doubt there are some who do find healing through organizations like Project Rachel and Ramah International, I suspect many others who are vulnerable and feel they have no other place to turn are drawn in under the false promises of emotional healing and are lured into a narrative of shame and a theology of sin.
Do people actually regret their abortions as much as Silent No More’s storytellers would have us believe? According to scientifically backed research, no. While some feelings of regret, guilt, and anger are common in the immediate aftermath of an abortion, the most common emotion is relief. Most people feel a combination of feelings, both positive and negative, that dissipate over time. After five years, a majority of people who have terminated pregnancies reported that they felt very few, if any, emotions surrounding their abortions. While there is no credible evidence to suggest that abortion causes long-term emotional distress, that does not mean that coping with the decision to end a pregnancy is easy.
Every life decision brings an end to something. Not every ending is experienced as a loss, but often it is. Unfortunately, our society does not recognize these types of changes as losses that we grieve. Early on in my research, I came across the work of Dr. Ken Doka, a psychologist, professor, and ordained Lutheran minister. In the 1980s, Dr. Doka coined the term disenfranchised grief to describe losses that go against our society’s “grieving rules” that dictate who and what is worthy of mourning. When we suffer a loss that we feel we cannot share with others because that loss is not recognized or supported openly, that is disenfranchised grief. Examples include grieving the death of an ex-spouse, a beloved pet, a miscarriage, or an abortion.
Dr. Doka sums up the problems with our collective responses to those who have had an abortion this way: “Many who affirm a loss may not sanction the act of abortion, whereas some who sanction the act may minimize the sense of loss.” The rhetoric of the mainstream reproductive rights movement, founded and largely led by white women, historically has centered around legality and individual bodily autonomy — that under the law, no one should be able to dictate what another person does with their body. This point is critical, but it is not sufficient for those called to care for people who have experienced abortion. Focusing on the point of decision alone, or the point of health care access alone, fails to address the process of grief and healing that some experience in the aftermath of making their decision, and it does not acknowledge the ways that people grow and change as a result.
I know from having spoken with many people about their abortions that they felt they could not express their feelings of sadness or grief because they feared they would be betraying the pro-choice cause. Even if they believe that their abortion was the right decision for them, they fear the ways in which their words may be used against them, that an antiabortion leader would use them as an example to say, “You see, this person really does regret their abortion!” As a result, they don’t feel like they can share the fullness of their stories, which can cause a sense of social disconnection and hinder healing.
That is why I’ve written this book: to share stories that capture the emotional and spiritual nuances of abortion, the grief that may arise as part of the process, and the pathways to healing, which often entail processing the myriad circumstances surrounding the abortion experience.
As followers of Christ, we have an opportunity and a responsibility to bridge the divide that Dr. Doka describes in his work on disenfranchised grief and abortion. We can make space for the gray. We can learn to live in the tension of affirming that abortion is a moral decision that pregnant people are fully capable of making and also acknowledge that this decision may, though certainly not always, evoke feelings of ambivalence, sadness, loss, and grief. We can honor the full spectrum of abortion experiences and provide sacred spaces for anyone who needs supportive spiritual care along the way.
We can fully support the sacred decision-making of every person regarding their bodies, their families, and their futures while we also care deeply about how those decisions have impacts on a person’s physical, mental, social, and spiritual well-being. We can affirm the decision to have an abortion while working for the conditions that would make parenting healthier, safer, and more joy filled for those who desire to parent.
We can hold space in both our faith communities and our own hearts for grief, relief, pain, healing, and joy after an abortion through our commitment to compassionate listening and our purposeful actions in seeking justice for those living on the margins. We can and we must reject the theology of shame and silence currently surrounding abortion in this culture and offer one rooted in the sacred truth that in all things, God journeys alongside us with abundant grace and unconditional love that will not let us go.
Together we can embody the love of Christ and become the healing community of support and compassion God has called us to be. ♦
Rev. Katey Zeh is an ordained Baptist minister and the CEO of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice. She is a member of Planned Parenthood’s Clergy Advocacy Board and the author of two books, A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement and Women Rise Up: Sacred Stories of Resistance for Today’s Revolution.
Zeh, Katey. “An excerpt from ‘A Complicated Choice: Making Space for Grief and Healing in the Pro-Choice Movement.” Canopy Forum, May 27, 2022. https://canopyforum.org/2022/05/27/an-excerpt-from-a-complicated-choice-making-space-for-grief-and-healing-in-the-pro-choice-movement/.